PhD Thesis - Americans in France 1944-45

"Over There" 1944/45 - Americans in the Liberation of France: their perceptions of and relations with France and the French 

 

 

PhD Thesis

Andrew A Thomson

University of Kent at Canterbury, England

PhD awarded October 1996

 

Over 2.3 million U.S. citizens found themselves shipped to France in 1944-45, most of them ordinary men conscripted into the Army. This study centres on the experiences of these Americans in France - how they were prepared for dealing with the French; their perceptions of France and its citizens on the eve of their arrival; the welcome they experienced, the giving and receiving of help; the changing relationship in the differing phases of the Liberation; and the legacy of the interaction - its immediate legacy, and the legacy of veterans' feelings towards the French in the 1990's. How the interaction of ordinary Americans and French worked out is the key theme.

 

The study draws primarily on U.S. Army records, records of Civil Affairs operations, and the results of the author's questionnaire of veterans with experience of France.

 

Following an overall good interaction in Normandy, Franco-American relations on the ground reached a highpoint with the sweep across northern France and the invasion of southern France in August 1944. In the twelve months from September 1944 there was a serious deterioration in relations, the principal factor being the effect of the passage of time. However, although the experience thus ended on a very low note, on balance the interaction had worked out reasonably well. Given the circumstances - that it was wartime, that the war dragged on for much longer than it had appeared that it would, that soldiers everywhere are likely to contain a rogue element, and that there was a language barrier - the interaction was a healthy one on balance. Because the American involvement was devoid of overtly colonial or bad historical overtones, it was more straightforward than it would otherwise have been and bore up reasonably well under the strains that did afflict it - a mix of practical and cultural strains, rather than 'colonial' ones.

 

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The full Thesis is available at the Library of the University of Kent at Canterbury. Purely to inform clients for my business of my Thesis and its conclusions, the following are available here:

 

Abstract (above)

Contents (immediately below)

Preface (below)

 

Contents: 

 

Preface page iv

List of figures page x

List of maps page xii

List of photographs page xiii

List of abbreviations page xiv

Word count page xiv

 

1: Introduction page 1 

 

2: Before landing: France and the American soldier page 13 

2.1 The training of ordinary troops regarding France 13

2.2 A Pocket Guide to France 16

2.3 Soldiers' knowledge of Franco-American historical links 22

2.4 Language capabilities 24

2.5 Pre-war experiences or links with France 28

2.6 Soldiers' perceptions of France and the French on the eve of their arrival there 29

2.7 Conclusions 32

 

3: Before landing: France and Civil Affairs staff page 33 

3.1 Civil Affairs: definition, history, organisation 33

3.2 The training of Civil Affairs staff regarding France 39

3.3 Conclusions 46

 

4: Normandy: June to August 1944 page 48 

4.1 Geographical and chronological background 49

4.2 First contacts 53

4.3 The overall welcome - the US Army's view 57

4.4 The overall welcome - the ordinary soldiers' view 62

4.5 The "ungrateful Normans" 67

4.6 Reciprocal help 74

4.7 The experiences of Civil Affairs detachments in Normandy 77

4.7 (i) The French welcome for, and subsequent attitude towards, the CA detachments 77

4.7 (ii) CA detachments' respect for French autonomy 79

4.7 (iii) CA detachments' tolerance of and respect for the French people 87

4.7 (iv) CA detachments' handling of American crimes towards French civilians 90

4.8 Conclusions 94

 

5: Sweep across France: August and September 1944 page 97 

5.1 Geographical and chronological background 98

5.1 (i) The north 99

5.1 (ii) The south 101

5.2 On the move - the welcome in northern France 104

5.3 The experiences of Civil Affairs detachments in northern France,

August & September 1944 117

5.3 (i) The French welcome for, and subsequent attitude towards, the CA detachments 118

5.3 (ii) CA detachments' respect for French autonomy 121

5.3 (iii) CA detachments' tolerance of and respect for the French people 126

5.3 (iv) CA detachments' handling of American crimes towards French civilians 127

5.4 The Liberation of Paris 129

5.4 (i) Chronology 129

5.4 (ii) The welcome 131

5.4 (iii) Who liberated Paris? The Liberation as a Franco-American sore point 133

5.5 The invasion of southern France 138

5.5 (i) The welcome in southern France 139

5.5 (ii) Help from the FFI and civilians 142

5.5 (iii) Civil Affairs in southern France 145

5.6 Conclusions 152

 

6: The hard winter of 1944/45 and its effects page 154 

6.1 Geographical and chronological background 155

6.2 Alsace-Lorraine - the welcome 159

6.3 The experiences of Civil Affairs detachments in eastern France,

October 1944 to early 1945 169

6.3 (i) The French welcome for, and subsequent attitude towards, the CA detachments 170

6.3 (ii) CA detachments' respect for French autonomy 175

6.3 (iii) CA detachments' tolerance of and respect for the French people 182

6.3 (iv) CA detachments' handling of American crimes towards French civilians 184

6.4 The deterioration in Franco-American relations on the ground:

September 1944 - September 1945 187

6.4 (i) The extent of the deterioration 187

6.4 (ii) The American perspective 193

6.4 (iii) The French perspective 198

6.5 Conclusions 211

 

7: The legacy page 213 

7.1 112 Gripes about the French 214

7.2 Veterans' views of France: the 1990s 219

7.3 Conclusions 224

 

8: Conclusion page 227 

 

Appendix 1: The Deployment of US Troops in Europe page 239

Appendix 2: Questionnaires page 249

Bibliography page 258

Index page 266

 

Preface 

 

The 40th Anniversary of D-Day caught my attention as a political event, since it saw an excellent example of the skilled - some would say cynical - manipulation of the medium of television by the staff of President Reagan's re-election campaign. It was reported that they had arranged for the President to deliver a moving speech atop the Pointe du Hoc cliffs in Normandy - recalling the heroism of the Marines who had scrambled up the cliffs early on D-Day to remove the threat to Omaha Beach from its guns - at a time of day such that it would be broadcast live on breakfast television on the US east coast. This was timed not just to catch breakfast viewers but to eclipse coverage of Democratic nominee-apparent Walter Mondale celebrating victory in the California primary election. As often when he spoke on military matters, Reagan's text was a mix (attractive to many voters) of optimism, respect, and sentimentality; the occasion was remembered by Reagan biographer Lou Cannon (in a deliberately cinematic metaphor) as "Reagan's best performance abroad".

 

The political interest, however, soon paled beside the drama and human interest of the many stories of Normandy veterans that appeared in the press in June 1984. It was striking to be reminded that the stirring but bloody events of 1944 had taken place just over the English Channel from where I lived. As a student of American history, it was sobering to note that several million Americans had had this experience of war - and of Europe - almost on my doorstep. The D-Day 40th Anniversary underlined how close my generation (born in the mid-1950s) was to that of the young front-line troops of World War II such as those Americans whose D-Day stories were being reported, most of them born in the 1920s; they were only one generation removed. What, I wondered, had these young Americans in 1944 made of France and the French ? My generation had a chance, with most of the young World War II generation now in their sixties, to tap their memories, to examine some of their perceptions and their experiences. To a British student of American history, with a strong interest in France, and with easy access to the areas of France which the Americans covered in 1944-45, serious study of this general topic would clearly be of interest.

 

The release in 1985 of Hollywood producer George Stevens' personal colour films made on the spot from Normandy, through Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and on into Germany - distributed in a compilation by the BBC entitled D-Day to Berlin - further stimulated my interest with its vivid bringing to life of an era we 'see' only in black and white. Visits to the new Mémorial museum in Caen (opened in 1988), along with the landing beaches themselves, provided much of the background to the military and political events. My interest was sealed by discovering the surprising absence of scholarly texts on the interaction of American soldiers and the French in 1944-45 - there was nothing to parallel books such as Norman Longmate's The G.I.s concerning the US troops in Britain. This field was clearly ripe for study.

 

The throwing together in the mid-1940's of ordinary Americans and ordinary French men and women was a topic that invited images of contrast and surprise. Relatively isolated and technologically backward residents of Normandy, under German occupation, but until June 1944 otherwise untouched by the direct effects of war, were suddenly faced with American soldiers in their midst, even in their homes. Many Normans fitted a stereotype of reserved, somewhat cold north Europeans; they were the opposite of outgoing. Short on expressiveness, many Normans were also very different to many Americans in their degree of provincialism: small-scale mobility (use of cars, for instance) and large-scale mobility (social fluidity) were both very limited. For this people, to have the American Army and the World War descend on their region was a massive shock; caution and concern were bound to feature in their resultant outlook on the Americans in their midst. Photograph 1 (below) captures some of this spirit: a lone American soldier stands self-consciously at his 'post' in the newly-liberated Norman town of Carentan, whilst a small group of middle-aged residents stand chatting a few yards off. With their seemingly ever-present cigarettes to their lips, the two men listen whilst the women talk and throw glances at the American; what this particular group thought of the generally tall, healthy and relatively uninhibited young Americans who they suddenly found in their midst remains, of course, unknown, but the photograph serves as a symbolic introduction to the overall topic of Franco-American interactions on the ground in 1944-45.

American & French (Carentan, Normandy, June 1944)

Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Washington DC

A lady who was 11 years-old at the time of D-Day vividly writes of how she met her first American soldier, in a description that captures the tenseness and excitement of some of these interactions. In the early hours of 6 June 1944 her father, a railway worker, had heard and then seen aeroplanes and parachutists in the skies around Ste-Mère-Eglise. He rushed back to his house beside the Paris to Cherbourg railway line to wake the family to tell them - and to fetch a bottle to celebrate:

 

He turned to go down the cellar, but before he had taken two steps the kitchen door was suddenly kicked open from outside, and standing framed against the darkness was a strangely dressed man carrying a machine-gun, which was aimed menacingly at us. Here we were .. ready to kiss and laugh and celebrate; instead of which, this fierce-looking stranger, his jaw set, his gun trained on us, had burst in on us from nowhere.

 

He kicked the door shut behind him, as violently as he had kicked it open. He didn't say a word. He just kept looking at us, as though waiting for someone to make a wrong move. My heart was pounding; I sensed, in that frozen moment, that if any of us did move then he would surely kill us on the spot. .. Finally the stranger broke the silence: 'Friend or foe?' he asked, in perfect French.

 

What a silly question, I thought; as if anyone would ever answer 'Foe'! In the heavy silence, the intermittent roar of the planes contrasted strangely with the quiet, persistent ticking of our old clock. It was [six-year-old] Claude who finally answered him. 'Friends, Monsieur - we're all friends'. His high little voice echoed round the room as he walked straight up to the soldier, his hands stretching out towards the barrel of the machine-gun. 'Friends', the soldier repeated, lowering the gun at last. 'Really friends ?' And he ran his grimy hand through Claude's hair.

 

We all breathed again. Following my little brother's example, I went over to the soldier and kissed him on the cheek. He looked surprised, but pleased. The whole room now relaxed, and my parents came back to life and walked over to him. The soldier pulled a map from his pocket and laid it out on the table. He was all business now; the time for pleasantries was over. .. 'Show me where the Germans are', he said.

 

Fifty years later, at the June 1994 D-Day 50th Anniversary, the drama of such encounters, the support offered by many Normans, and the liberation delivered by the American troops featured strongly in the celebrations in western Normandy. Photograph 2 (below) shows the scene at one of the many smaller-scale ceremonies held on 7 June 1994, the day after the set-piece international ceremonies with Heads of State. The photograph is of the close of a ceremony held in the churchyard at Picauville, a small village five miles west of Ste-Mère-Eglise, by the 508th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. The ceremony demonstrated how, in marking such momentous events and such traumatic times for both troops and civilians, very few ideas and concepts needed to be drawn on; they were few, but they were strong and deeply-felt.

American troops leading D-Day 50th Anniversary ceremony at Picauville, Normandy, 7th June 1994

The ceremony lasted less than fifteen minutes, starting with the marching in to the churchyard of a small group of modern US troops with their band, followed by a group of approximately forty US veterans; a crowd of about eighty was spread around the churchyard, spilling into the road. The Marseillaise was played, and the Americans were welcomed in a very brief speech, in French, which stressed the warmth of the village's greetings, their thanks for the events of June 1944, a pledge to never forget, and an expression of best wishes to the people of the United States. A current-day American soldier replied in English, again very briefly, noting the honour that it had been for men of the United States to liberate a people who were suffering, thanking the people of the village and its surrounding countryside who had looked after the paratroopers, and closing by a call to remember all those on both sides who had died in the area in those days in 1944. This was followed by a lone bugler playing 'Taps', and then the band playing the US national anthem. The French host thanked the Americans again, and then the troops marched out behind their band; the veterans filed out behind them, and headed for a barn where refreshments were to be served. This brief occasion - for many of the veterans the centrepiece of their visit, since it was the most specific to their regiment and to the community in which they had landed - was moving in its simplicity, and was marked by a striking degree of earnestness on the part of the young American soldiers (most of them born since the Vietnam War even). It was a reminder of the power not just of the individual memories of June 1944 but of the collective national memories, both French and American. Regardless of the good and bad points of the overall interaction between Americans and French in 1944-45, that interaction had been marked for many French and many American troops by shared moments of extreme danger, terror, and (for many) excitement; both sides had at times found themselves in situations that demanded that they draw on the most basic instincts of protection of or trust in others. Such intense shared experiences usually bestrode all barriers of language and status. But such moments, for most Americans and French, came to be outweighed by the ordinariness of troop life or the struggle to make ends meet in a war-torn country; this naturally put a strain on relations. To a degree, the overall interaction of Americans and French in 1944-45 can be seen as a struggle between the 'noble' or emotional side of their interactions - the peak moments of intense shared experience - and the ordinary, irritating side of having to 'get along' with each other in poor circumstances.

 

When setting out on this study I was uncertain how far I could or should employ oral history, undertaking a comprehensive programme of interviews of US World War II veterans of France. Early on it became clear that it would be impractical for me to interview enough veterans to obtain the comprehensive sample of veterans and their experiences which I felt that the breadth of the topic demanded. Consequently I devised a questionnaire to obtain data and opinions regarding veterans' experiences of France and the French. This was very successful, resulting in over two hundred replies, the majority of which elicited interesting observations and illustrations. The rationale behind the questionnaire, an analysis of the respondees, and a blank questionnaire can be found at Appendix 2.

 

The study draws on these questionnaire responses; the records of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) , the US Army commands in the field, and the European Theater of Operations Historical Division ; Civil Affairs records (training, and operations) ; the reports of French Préfets ; personal papers and unpublished histories ; and a handful of interviews.

 

I would like to acknowledge the help of many people in bringing this study to fruition. Firstly, my thesis supervisors (in chronological order): Dr Melvyn Stokes of University College London, Dr Julian Hurstfield of the University of Kent at Canterbury, and Professor David Welch, Head of the School of History at Kent. I have received excellent assistance from archivists, especially Dr Richard Summers and his staff at the Military History Institute, and Richard Boylan and his staff at the National Archives, Suitland Branch (now moved to College Park, Md.). Professor Stephen Ambrose of the University of New Orleans gave me encouragement and advice at the start of the project, introduced me to some of the collections at the Military History Institute, and commented on an early draft of two chapters. I am grateful for financial support from the British Association for American Studies, the University of London Central Research Fund, the History Department at University College London, my parents, and Canterbury Business School; for hospitality in the United States from the McDowell, Matthews, and Mitchell families, and in Caen from the Dumas family; for the time and willingness to be interviewed of André Heintz, Philippe Jutras and Allen Petersen; for research assistance from my wife, Judith, in the Archives Nationales, and from my eldest son, Ben, in the Imperial War Museum Library; for assistance in distributing my questionnaires in June 1994 from Ralph Bennett of Tours International (Tunbridge Wells), and for help from all the family with folding all those questionnaires! Finally, a special thank you to Judith, Ben, Hannah and Joseph for their encouragement, curiosity, and support.

 

Andrew Thomson, Canterbury, June 1996

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